In the beginning, there was only a smell. It was barely perceptible under the scent of California grasses, seaweed, and redwood, but it was there: a faint stink oozing into the atmosphere, which was easily dismissed at the time as a leaky delivery truck or lawnmower. As the smell crept into the sky, the sun was slipping into the horizon. I was in the habit of taking a picture every evening; the refracted pinks and reds were so vivid at Rodeo Beach that I had begun stepping out of my office and using my work camera to capture the sunset every day from the same spot as a personal creative project. That evening’s was gorgeous: an expansive sunset that reflected off the coastline curving around from the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a spectacular place to have an office, nestled in a protected national park only steps from the Pacific Ocean.
I was working in communications for The Marine Mammal Center, a rescue, rehabilitation, and research nonprofit organization. That evening, we were holding our annual “State of the Ocean” address, so we all hung around after work to prepare. The Center and hospital are housed at Fort Cronkhite, a WWII military post that now lodges nonprofit organizations in the barracks and bunkers. I was tired that day and mildly annoyed at the thought of having to take pictures for the newsletter of our scientists presenting their research data to our donors. It would be an evening of dry numbers and boring Powerpoints charting the spread of toxic algae and domoic acid poisoning in sea lions and the corresponding spread of chemical fertilizers washing into the Pacific in agricultural runoff, or the rate of whale mortality in relation to nautical speed and sonar activity in commercial shipping lanes. When taking pictures, I always preferred the visceral drama of the hospital: the emotion-triggering images of bloody surgeries, extractions of fishing hooks from flesh, or anesthesia masks covering the snouts of prone animals. Such images penetrated the public’s consciousness. Donors responded better when they could see the dramatic human impact on a sea lion with a gunshot through the head or a stomach full of plastic bags and fishing nets. In truth, we had far more patients that were simply starving to death due to commercial overfishing, but skinny sea lions sleeping peacefully in a corner and statistics on paper did not bring the news cameras or donations. So I preferred to take photos of recovering baby sea lions suckling at bottles or harbor seals bobbing adorably in their pools like fat floating kittens, the paint stains on their heads identifying them for the staff and volunteers. That was my job. The researchers looked at parasites and tumors through microscopes in the lab or tracked transmitters embedded in elephant seals, and my job was to make people care enough to write checks to keep that work going. I was good at it.
When I stepped outside to snap the sunset that November evening, I was preoccupied with my stories: healed patients being released back into the ocean, dangerous rescues of disoriented sea lions off of airport runways, dead whales the size of buses washing up on beaches and our veterinarians standing atop them with carving knives to perform necropsies. In retrospect, I remember a vague smell, that petroleum smell seeping into the salty air. But like the silver flash of a fish leaping out of the water for a moment before disappearing into the sea again, the observation was gone as quickly as I noted it. I felt no cause for alarm. Earlier that day, I had received a call from a news reporter who asked if we had received any reports of an oil spill in the bay. I called our rescue department, and they confirmed that, indeed, out of mere protocol, the coast guard had informed them of a ship that had leaked a bit of oil, but that it was only a couple of hundred gallons at most, barely worth mentioning, and would not have any effect on wildlife at all. I relayed the information to the reporter and immediately dismissed it in the steady flow of the busy day.
As anticipated, the evening dragged as researchers presented their data dutifully. Click, click, click. Their slides moved across the screen, the light bathing donors’ blank faces as they sipped chardonnay from plastic cups. One of them had brought a toddler, who distracted us with her chatter in the corner. The audience was thanked for coming, the donors were thanked for their support making the Center’s research possible, and after two hours, they shuffled out into the night and drove home while we staff folded chairs and wrapped up food. We were looking forward to getting home.
With a colleague, I walked to my car along the road that fronted the beach. Away from the city lights, the ocean was black, with only the mirrored moonlight wavering in the tide as it moved in and out. The smell had grown much stronger now, an undeniable petroleum smell.
“Whoa. Do you smell that?” I asked my colleague. “I’m wondering if that could have anything to do with that oil spill I got a call about today. Could that be from just a couple hundred gallons all the way on the other side of the bay?”
We stopped and peered out into the unyielding dark across Rodeo Beach, hearing only the waves reaching at the shore repeatedly. But there was nothing to see—just blackness.
Of course, it was not a few hundred gallons of oil. Not even close. It was, in fact, 53,569 gallons of heavy bunker fuel that had poured into the San Francisco Bay from the container ship Cosco Busan after its drug-impaired pilot crashed the vessel into the Bay Bridge in dense fog, a fact that had been misreported by the shipping company and, then, by the U.S. Coast Guard. I learned all of this even before I arrived at work the next morning. My boss called me at 7 a.m., asking me to come in as soon as possible. As I drove into the Marin Headlands, the national park where The Marine Mammal Center is located, there was a news van behind me on the twisting road, riding my tail. When I arrived at the Rodeo Beach parking lot, there were three other news vans parked there, along with trucks from the National Park Service, the police department, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as well as a National Response Center big rig with the words NRC Emergency Spill Response splashed across its side. Next to that was a phrase, in enormous red cursive letters: Always Ready.
We are never ready. I don’t care what they tell me, we are never ready, because what does ready really mean in the context of an oil spill? Is ready meant to convey a sense of inspiration and comfort? Ready means we already believe something is coming; ready means we have a plan of response for when we inevitably fuck up again. It implies that this disaster is the cost of doing business, that this very scenario has actually been planned. The inherent cynicism in being always ready, when the thing we claim to be always ready for is relentless human destruction, does not comfort me. I hate that those men with the Emergency Spill Response team felt ready and that they believed ready was a good thing. They were sitting on bulldozers, feeling pleased with their readiness, chugging around on the beach, plowing up the sticky, tarred sand where only weeks before we had released several sea lions back into the ocean. Dozens of men in yellow hazmat suits and blue rubber gloves were busily funneling the sludgy mess from the bulldozers into thousands of plastic bags piled into a towering monument of human failure on a huge plastic tarp. But I was not ready. My colleagues and I, who found ourselves on the front lines both figuratively and literally—we were never ready. And I don’t ever want to be ready.
The Marine Mammal Center is a member of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) and the California Department of Fish & Game’s Oil Spill Prevention and Response Program. Because the full impact of the Cosco Busan oil spill did not become apparent until the sun broke over the tarnished beaches the next morning, the only trained oiled wildlife responders ready to be mobilized on site were two of our veterinary and rescue staff members, who had coincidentally completed a course legally required for handling oiled wildlife because of their work with marine mammals in the hospital. It was sheer chance that the Center happened to be based on a beach that had been infiltrated by the oil, black blobs of which speckled the backlit waves in the morning sun before being deposited on the shore to seep into the sand. Our people were already on site, and they were the logical first responders. But because our trained oiled wildlife responders were not prepared to respond to oil spills directly, it took a couple of hours for them to locate the mandatory hazmat suits, find two more rescuers, and drive into San Francisco to pick up the regulation transport boxes, hundreds of blue plastic boxes with ventilation holes cut into the sides.
As we waited for them to return, I stood with my camera, looking at the beach I had photographed the day before. The smell was now overpowering, worming itself straight up my nostrils to twine around my nerves. I developed a dull headache and felt nauseous. I could do nothing but take pictures as I stood with the men in uniform behind the plastic yellow police tape that stretched across the beach in front of the sign: National Park Service. Area Closed. Do not enter. Hazardous contaminants in water. Behind me, a crowd was gathering, people from the community who had driven out to see it for themselves. We all stood behind the tape, legally restricted from walking onto the beach.
I know with reasonable certainty that we were not ready for what we saw, none of us. Dotted all the way down the beach were birds. They were in every stage of demise. Some lay on their sides, beaks opening and shutting as they attempted to get air past the thick tarry fuel that clogged their gullets and moved into their lungs, where it would slowly suffocate them. Others desperately tried to clean their oiled feathers in an instinctual attempt to get air-bound or restore their buoyancy, unaware that their efforts would create the same lethal situation as that of their suffocating neighbors. Still others never even had the opportunity to clean their feathers, because their bodies were coated completely in thick tar and crusted with layers of sand as they flailed about in their final moments, blind and deaf. The bulldozers drove around them, scooping sand. The pile of plastic bags grew taller.
There was a solemnity in the crowd that I will never forget, a collective sorrow imbuing us as we watched the scene unfold on the other side of the thin strip of yellow plastic that held us mercilessly to the role of witness. It made people whisper to each other. It made the news crews walk down the beach away from the crowd to conduct their reports. And we waited.
A cormorant washed in with the water during this vigil and began to flail in the surf. It flapped one wing, and the other wing was stuck to its back, so that it spun in frantic circles. We all watched as it struggled, waves washing it back and forth at the tideline. It craned its long neck back to pull at the coated wing, its beak growing darker and stickier with bunker fuel. Minutes passed. And then, quite suddenly, a young woman darted from the crowd, ducked under the yellow tape, and was sprinting toward the water, her thin legs gangly and awkward as she ran in flip-flops across the sand. The men in uniform all ran to the tape but did not dare cross it themselves.
They called to her. “Young lady, come back here!” yelled the park ranger. “You are breaking the law!” yelled the NOAA representative. But she didn’t come back. She reached the surf and scooped the flapping bird up, holding it against her chest, and ran back to the crowd. She took the bird to the back of a pickup truck and tried to pour bottled water over it, but the water ran off the oily mess. She sank to the ground, her long legs folded under her, and began sobbing. “Why isn’t anyone helping?” she kept asking.
The policeman was standing over her. “Ma’am, what you just did is a felony.”
“So arrest me then,” she said, clutching the bird to her. Her long hair stuck to the bird, and her shirt was stained black. Her fingers were caked dark brown.
The NOAA rep joined the officer. “Only people wearing protective gear can handle these animals,” he said. “That’s an extremely toxic substance on your skin.”
When I was a representative of The Marine Mammal Center, it was my job to understand the principles behind laws and to communicate them to the public. I learned my talking points for interviews about the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the illegality of human interaction with wildlife for a host of very valid reasons, most of which are to protect the animals from people. In that moment on the beach, I stayed mute because to advocate breaking federal laws as a spokesperson for a wildlife hospital governed by those laws would have cost me my job.
But I no longer work at the Center. So now I can say that my heart leapt when I saw the young woman duck under the yellow tape and run. And now I can say what I was secretly thinking: “Go, girl. Run!” I believe that some realization had been seeping into all of our hearts with the excruciating passage of time, as we were forcibly separated from a horrifying scene of suffering that we knew, on some level, we had helped cause as human beings. We had to bear witness to the birds thrashing helplessly behind a bureaucratic line drawn in the sand to keep us safe from being tarred, and it made us privileged in a way that felt shameful. My heart leapt when I saw the girl run because she refused the division imposed on us by laws and protocol and yellow tape. She was enacting what my heart was screaming, what I believe we all were feeling but were too cowardly to do. Maybe it was stupid, maybe it endangered her, but it was an act of pure emotion. It was an act of love. And I don’t believe that people can understand why the facts matter until their hearts know it, too.
Our rescuers arrived in their hazmat suits, and they trudged down the beach, returning again and again with sealed boxes of live birds as their white suits stained black with oil. The dead birds were piled into cardboard boxes to be counted at the emergency command center established at Fort Mason in San Francisco by the OWCN. I helped to stack the rescue boxes in the vans we normally used to transport rescued seals and sea lions, and watched the boxes bounce like jumping beans as panicked birds flapped inside them. We drove to Ford Mason, where we unloaded the boxes into OWCN trucks. Birds had been arriving there from all around the Bay Area, and the trucks were lined with cages. They were filled to capacity with sad-looking waterfowl, all of them black. But the cardboard boxes with the piles of dead bodies were even more disturbing to me. I asked the volunteer to hold one carcass up for me and stretch its wings to show that the mass of sludge was a bird. I wanted to capture images to make people feel it all, to know the visceral loss the way we had experienced it standing on the edge of the beach, to feel the overpowering need to duck under yellow tape and do something. I opened one of the rescue boxes and snapped a photo of a loon covered in oil, twisting its red eyes up at me. The inside of the box was smeared black where the loon had beaten its wings. We left the boxes with the OWCN. Then we returned to Rodeo Beach to pick up another load of birds.
Our two trained responders were women whom I had seen rescue and treat hundreds of injured and ill animals over the years. I had watched them tube-feed malnourished seals, do necropsies on baby dolphins, euthanize sea lions suffering from seizures, and extract embedded fish nets from infected necks. They always did these things professionally, remaining calm and composed. They were scientific, pragmatic women. But when they delivered the last boxes of oiled birds to the vans, wiping the perspiration beading up on their foreheads, one of them walked away and stood staring at the beach, dazed, and the other doubled over. When she stood, there were tears leaking from her eyes.
“My God. I’ve never seen anything like that,” she said. “It’s just, it’s just everywhere.”
Over the days following the spill, I spoke to reporters repeatedly. “As first responders on the scene, The Marine Mammal Center rescued waterfowl off of Rodeo Beach,” I said, over and over. “We have no way of knowing how much effect it will ultimately have on marine mammals. Our researchers will likely chart the effects of the oil spill on marine mammals over the years—rises in cancer, mutations, decreases in fish populations they feed on. Much of the oil sank and killed additional wildlife, including an estimated 30 percent of the herring spawn.”
“And how bad was the oil there, from your perspective?” one reporter asked me.
I paused before giving her another line. “You know what?” I said. “I’ll send you a picture of a bird if you publish it.”
For many days after the spill, when I stepped out to take my usual photograph of the sunset, the yellow police tape remained there, and the men continued piling plastic bags on the sand. Then they disappeared from the landscape, and a bright orange fence was erected to separate the part of the beach that was still unsafe. For several weeks, the fence stretched across my photos until it, too, was gone, and the beach looked exactly the same as it had before—pristine and gold-hued, unblemished by fences and machines. I suppose I could have presented our donors with that restored image of an idyllic beach to still their consciences and preserve their illusions. But people always cared more, and sent more money, when I fostered their distress. So I went back inside my office and laid out the photos of oiled birds and men in hazmat suits for the newsletter, because my job was to make people care. My job was to make always ready a distasteful phrase. My job was to inspire us all to break from the bonds of witness. To duck under the yellow tape and seize our moment. To run like hell toward the surf.